An Overview of the Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"There is no other rule or test for one who is a member of the people of God or the church of Christ that this: where there is a little band of those who accept this word of the Lord, teach it purely and witness against those who persecute it, and for that reason suffer what is their due.'"
--No Rusty Swords

"In Christ we are offered the possibility of partaking in the reality of God and in the reality of the world, but not in the one without the other.  The reality of God discloses itself only by setting me entirely in the reality of the world, and when I encounter the reality of the world it is always already sustained, accepted and reconciled in the reality of God.  This is the inner meaning of the revelation of God in the man Jesus Christ. "

  1. Ethics is not about a systemic knowledge of good and evil, but about being the restored, new man--that is, becoming like Christ.
  2. No one can truly know the absolute goodness of his or her actions; however, one can know if one is in relationship with God in Christ.
  3. Therefore, ethical living is not a matter of developing a list of rules, but of discerning the will of God in each situation and doing that will.
  4. Union with God compels one to act in love, and the definition of what is love is found in Jesus.
  5. The human values of reason, culture, justice, and so forth can only be maintained authentically when they return to their origins in Christ.
  6. "I feel about it more or less like this: the good citizen, too, is humble before God, but the vicious man really lives only by grace" (63n.)
  7. "Reason," "fanaticism," "conscience," "duty," "freedom," and "private virtuousness" all fail as tools for locating a true ethic.
  8. The will of God can only be found by being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
  9. Christ's Incarnation makes the humanity of each person the essential place where formation is to happen.
  10. Christ Crucified challenges a world based on "success" as a measure of public notice and as the justification for one's actions. "That is why the arraigners of history never cease to complain that all success comes of wickedness" (77).
  11. Conformation to Christ is achieved by Christ not by our own efforts.
  12. The Church is where this formation takes place, not as a group of gathered worshippers, but as the very Body of Christ.
  13. Christian ethics are not formed by a set of abstract principles but by the concrete test of each situation--Are my actions helping others to be truly human before God? Is Christ being formed in them in the world?
  14. The Enlightenment forces of rationalism, nationalism, and technology cannot be turned back, but they can be a turning back to Christ through confession of our guilt.
  15. This confession is absolutely essential for the Church, lest she lose her identity and true nature for ever.
  16. The "ultimate," that is the "last word," is that we are justified by faith in Christ; the "penultimate" next-to-last word is that life requires compromising situations. These counter-truths can only be reconciled in Christ the Incarnate. Humanity is called to be penultimate in the light of the ultimate, that is, nature is lived out with grace in mind.
  17. Natural rights are summed up in the principle of the love of neighbor. They follow from the fact that God has made persons and has destined them for eternal life, so God is the ultimate guarantor of rights.
  18. The principle of suum cuique ("to each his own") is only of limited usefulness because it does not take into account the conflict of various goods that can happen in the nature.
  19. The rights of the individual are what undergird the rights of the community; the community cannot be allowed to eliminate an individual's rights.
  20. Bodily life is one of these natural rights; abortion and euthanasia are wrong because they violate this right, while war is allowable being more complex. Suicide is lack of faith in God. Contraception ultimately is also a denial of God's purpose and blessing on marriage, which is ordained by him and therefore also a natural right. Rape, torture, and slavery also violate the natural rights of people.
  21.  The classic division between nature and grace is another human idea subject to abuse. Nothing can be outside Christ for the Christian. We are always coming to see reality for what it truly is--the world becoming reconciled to Christ.
  22. The mandates that God has given concerning work, government, and marriage provide the norms by which we show our obedience; they do not address the exceptions that sometimes arise (e.g. Nazi Germany).
  23. True responsibility is a manifestation of selflessness, which arises from being a "deputy" who acts on others' behalf. It involves "what is necessary at the given place and with a due consideration of reality," including having a sense of each thing's own internal nature.
  24. The exception to the rule, the necessita, seeks to fulfill the true nature of the rule. (Thus, disobeying the government still seeks to fulfill what the government was intended for.) Even conscience is not the last word, for circumstances may arise in which one must violate one's conscience for what responsibility (i.e. mercy) demands. Here, the conscience is found innocent in Christ. (Thus, the person who must lie to protect Jews in hiding, even while still troubled about the lie is upheld by Christ.)
  25. Freedom is, thus, an element of ethical living, but it is balanced and bond by obedience.
  26. Both the monastic view of vocation and the secular Protestant view are mistaken because they create a sacred-profane dichotomy. Rather, each person "takes up his position against the world in the world; the calling is the place at which the call of Christ is answered, the place at which a man lives responsibly. . . .Vocation is responsibility and responsibility is a total response of the whole man to the whole of reality" (255-56, 258).
  27. The commandment of God places total claim on us all via Jesus Christ, but this commandment is subject to various human interpretations at various times and places. Thus, treating our interpretations as absolute formulations is always subject to danger.
  28. God's mandates are different than ethical precepts because they focus on life as it is lived, not on what is not allowed. "The commandment of God is permission to live as man before God" (281). God's commands to us in Christ are always to someone, to concrete situations and circumstances. They are always given in Christ as testified to by scripture.
  29. The mandates of work, family, church, and state cannot be isolated from each other or treated in isolation. They are not simply the result of historical development and evolution, but are given by God from above. Earthly authority is always derived form God.
  30. The commandments of God in the Church are realized through preaching and church discipline. The Church proclaims "Jesus Christ, the eternal Son with the Father for all eternity;" "Jesus Christ, the Crucified Reconciler;" and "Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Lord." 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. ed. Eberhard Bethge. NY: Macmillan, 1965.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding